I’ve recently completed a three-year term as a member of Duke’s Provost’s Advisory Committee on Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure. This is the first in a series of posts inspired by lessons learned in the course of that service.
I grew up in an academic household (put more crudely, I was a faculty brat). I have many childhood memories of discussions involving the word “tenure.” I had no idea what it meant. In fact, I thought that the term being used was “ten year,” which didn’t really help me make sense of it.
Tenure is an easy thing to explain – a lifetime labor contract – but can be a hard thing to make sense of. The commitment to lifetime labor contracts in other occupations, such as elementary and secondary teaching, or in other countries, such as Japan, has been assailed on several grounds. Employees on lifetime contracts face few consequences if they shirk their duties; employers without the capacity to reshape their workforce have difficulty in controlling costs or adapting to new realities in the marketplace.
These arguments are relevant to tenure in higher education. Tenured faculty might lose the respect of their colleagues if they slack off, but they won’t be fired. The presence of tenured faculty also makes universities less nimble in response to changes in academic trends. Back in the 1980s, demand for Japanese language instruction was high because we all thought Japan was going to take over the world. Nowadays, Mandarin seems to be the flavor of the decade.
Why does tenure make sense? Here are five arguments, the first one undeniably true but not intellectually satisfying, and the last four more sensible.
1. Universities tenure faculty because everybody else is doing it.
Universities want to recruit and retain the best faculty – the ones doing the best research and bringing the most up-to-date knowledge into the classroom. If you are a business that wants to recruit the best people, and all your competitors offer lifetime contracts, then you need to do the same.
What makes this argument intellectually unsatisfying is that it leaves open the possibility that tenure is a prisoner’s dilemma – a game in which everybody would be better off if they could collude and agree to abolish tenure. See, for example, the intellectual debate over employer-provided health care, which similarly developed as an alternative to paying employees cash. So “everybody else is doing it” isn’t necessarily an argument that would convince a tenure skeptic to stop worrying and embrace lifetime contracts.
2. Universities tenure faculty to encourage risk-taking.
This is the basic mantra we repeated on the APT committee. By giving someone a lifetime contract, you are giving them a license to work on risky research projects – ones for which the prospects of a true advancement in knowledge are highly uncertain and unlikely to be known for a long time. The focus on this sort of risky project is one of the things that makes the University a distinct place from private-sector R&D firms – pharmaceutical companies and the like. In the private sector, a failed experiment is unequivocally bad because it did not make money. At a university, a failed experiment is nonetheless valued because it creates knowledge.
3. Universities use tenure as a substitute for cash.
Labor economists speak of compensating differentials – the adjustment in salary associated with the offer of a non-cash benefit. Tenure is a non-cash benefit; we expect university faculty to accept lower salaries in exchange for their lifetime contracts. In the short run, then, the university saves money by granting tenure.
How big are the compensating differentials, in practice? Consider the following evidence, taken from the American Community Survey five-year sample of 2007-2011. It is a 5% sample of the American population, counting some 130,000 Ph.D. holders. For each Ph.D. holder, the survey reports their total wage and salary income, occupation and industry. This makes it possible to compare Ph.D. holders inside and outside academia – specifically the industry known as “Colleges and Universities” in the ACS. The comparisons here are restricted to individuals between the ages of 35 and 65, reporting occupations with strong representation both in academia and in the private sector (private sector here would also include non-academic government or nonprofit jobs).
Across the board, Ph.D.-holders in academia earn less than their counterparts outside, by significant margins. Psychologists and engineers with Ph.D.s report earning about 16% more in jobs outside of universities. Doctorate recipients in the biological and life scientists earn 50% more outside of academia. And scientists in a broad category including both chemistry and physics earn 60% more in the private sector.
There are plenty of caveats associated with this analysis. There is no way to know whether ACS respondents actually have tenure. Scientists both inside and outside academia might supplement their wage and salary income with independent contractor or self-employment income.
But there’s another facet to the story as well. Not only do universities pay below-market salaries in exchange for offering lifetime employment, they also don’t always bear the full cost of a faculty member’s salary. In the sciences, in particular, faculty members are unlikely to receive tenure unless they have a strong track record of winning grants to support their research – and their own salaries.
By this point, tenure might look less like a weird thing that colleges do and more like a shrewd business maneuver. But the story does not end here.
4. Universities tenure faculty because it’s too hard to evaluate them on an ongoing basis.
Faculty in many, perhaps most, disciplines conduct research that is challenging to explain or justify to a lay person. In some departments, faculty members conduct research that is nearly incomprehensible to other members of the same department! In order to understand the value of what a faculty member does, one typically has to consult with other experts in the same field.
That is exactly what happens in a standard tenure review process. Outside experts in the candidate’s field offer confidential assessments of the candidate’s research and prospects for future success. A review committee prepares a report summarizing these assessments and offering their own perspective; the full tenured faculty reviews the report; the department chair writes a separate report; the dean writes yet another report. A university-wide committee reviews all the reports and recommends a course of action to the top administrators who make the ultimate decision.
Many, many person-hours’ worth of time are devoted to this review process. Although there is no direct compensation for much of this effort, it is nonetheless extremely costly. To have to conduct such a review process for every faculty member, on an ongoing basis, in lieu of just granting them tenure and letting them do as they please, would amount to sacrificing enormous quantities of research for the purposes of review.
The obvious retort to this point would be to advocate for a simpler ongoing review process. And indeed, there is a cursory annual review process for tenured faculty at Duke. But a simpler process necessarily involves relying on people who are not experts in a professor’s field assessing what that professor has done. And that’s a recipe for making ill-informed decisions. With the benefit of hindsight, we might discover that mistakes were made in granting some faculty tenure. But the rate of mistake-making would almost certainly be higher if decisions were made more frequently and with less thought.
5. Universities are sophisticated enough to offer tenure only to those faculty who pose minimal risk.
The main downside risk of offering a lifetime contract is discovering, too late, that your employee is not inclined to do any useful work. The basic strategy for mitigating this risk is to identify people who not only have a track record of doing useful work, but also love that work so much – the research, the teaching, and the service to the institution and their field – that they could not even contemplate a life of leisure. As their field evolves, they want to evolve along with it.
My first insight into this point came courtesy of a professor whom I worked for as an undergraduate some years ago. I managed to get a good amount of work done on my assigned project, and in true economist style my supervisor said “this is great, but it makes me wonder how you consume any leisure.”
I responded, “I guess I just have a perverted notion of leisure.” Translated from the native economics-speak, I was asked how I could have any fun doing so much work, and I responded that the work itself was fun.
By this time, my professor was well aware of my intention to pursue an academic career. His response to me: “well, you’re going into the right line of work.”